Bengaluru: Alexei Leonov’s father was upset as a livestream from a Russian space expedition on 18 March 1965 showed the cosmonaut hanging out of his spacecraft.
“Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he said, according to Leonov’s book Two Sides of The Moon. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? He must be punished for this.”
Leonov Sr didn’t know at the time that his son had just made history as the first human to spacewalk. The feat was pulled off as part of a super-secret mission that helped the erstwhile USSR score another point in its Cold War-era space race with the US. The operation also almost cost Leonov his life.
On the 54th anniversary of the first-ever spacewalk, ThePrint looks back at how Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, who stayed inside the spacecraft through the mission, beat the odds to glide straight into history books.
Race for space
In the 1960s, at the peak of the Cold War, Americans were getting ready to go to the moon.
NASA had started using the term ‘extravehicular activity’ or EVA to refer to the activities the astronauts were to perform on the lunar surface.
In a bid to beat NASA, the erstwhile Soviet Union rapidly implemented design changes to their Vostok spacecraft — aboard which Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space — to develop a new series, the multi-pilot Voskhod, capable of supporting EVA.
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It was aboard a Voskhod spacecraft that Leonov and Belyayev finally set off for space, on a mission named Voskhod 2.
Despite the intensive 18-month training received by the duo, several things went wrong during the spacewalk, placing the cosmonauts in mortal danger. The general public would not know these details of the mission for several decades.
Almost out of breath in space
The night before the launch, Leonov barely slept. At the time, on the night before a mission, cosmonauts were hooked up to devices that would monitor their sleep.
Speaking to the European Business Review in 2017, Leonov said he was uneasy through the night on account of the machines — even though he was fairly excited at the prospect of sleeping in a bed that was once used by Gagarin.
Once in space, Leonov stepped out of the spacecraft, which was orbiting the Earth at nearly 30,000km/hr, with a metal backpack containing 45 minutes worth of oxygen.
His suit had a vent to expel heat, moisture, and carbon dioxide. There was no way for him to manoeuvre outside the vehicle except by pulling the tether that tied him to the spacecraft.
But this was the very first spacesuit to be exposed to outer space with a human in it, and it wasn’t perfect.
It immediately ballooned because of the internal pressure keeping Leonov alive against the vacuum of space.
After floating freely outside for 10 minutes, Leonov realised that it had ballooned so much, he could not turn on the camera mounted on his chest. The public, watching or listening to a telecast of the mission all this while, suddenly found the transmission cut off.
Back in space, Leonov was starting to realise that this level of inflation meant that there was a stiff layer of air between his extremities and the suit, preventing him from entering in feet first as he should.
There was no way for him to push himself into the airlock (according to NASA, airlock is an “airtight room with two entrances that allows an astronaut to go on a spacewalk without letting the air out of the spacecraft”).
According to the account he offered in his book, he realised that the only thing he could do was move in head first, release some air, and push the rest of his body in.
This was incredibly risky. Bleeding air meant that Leonov would be at high risk of running out of oxygen, and if he didn’t manage to get inside in time, he would pass out in space.
“I knew I might be risking oxygen starvation, but I had no choice,” he wrote in the book, which he co-authored with Apollo astronaut David Scott.
“If I did not reenter the craft, within the next 40 minutes my life support would be spent anyway,” he added.
Leonov also decided against informing mission control, reasoning that he was the only one who could do something about the situation.
According to the European Business Review interview, as he slowly twisted and grappled in space, bleeding oxygen, the amount of extra exertion was causing his temperature to rise dangerously high, by nearly 2°C.
He could feel heat waves traveling up and down his limbs, and his risk of heatstroke climbed by the second.
Once he entered the airlock head first, he had to contort and turn 180 degrees to then shut the hatch. Belyayev then immediately equalised the pressure, allowing Leonov to clamber back into the inner hatch, drenched in sweat.
But further challenges awaited. Unknown to mission control, a host of new problems were occurring on the spacecraft, which was said to have been designed in a hurry so Russia could steal a march (spacewalk) on the US.
Just before reentry, the astronauts realised that their automatic guidance system wasn’t functioning. As the system that was supposed to guide them through the atmosphere and land the capsule was no longer reliable, the two were forced to switch to manual.
They had to then align the craft to enter the atmosphere at the correct angle: A little too much of a fuel burn would mean they would plummet to the ground with no speed control, a little too short, and they would simply bounce off the atmosphere like a skipping stone on water.
In their last orbit, they started recalibrating their instruments to enter manually when an indicator showed that the main engine for reentry was low on fuel. They also had just enough fuel to perform one course correction.
It turned out one of the hatches wasn’t shut properly after Leonov’s reentry and the environmental control system compensated by pumping oxygen into the cabin. Soon, the oxygen level within the spacecraft started climbing, making the air flammable.
As the retro-engines were fired, the spacecraft slowed down and entered the atmosphere. But something was wrong again. Describing the sensation in his book, Leonov said it felt as if something was pulling them from behind as they blazed through the atmosphere.
Ten seconds after the engines fired, the landing model module the crew were in was supposed to detach from the orbital module, leaving the latter to burn up in the layers of atmosphere.
Looking out the window, Leonov realised that a communication cable was still holding the two modules together, and the entire thing was spinning around like a floppy dumbbell.
They were subjected to excess of 10 Gs of force, a condition called redout occurred and several blood vessels in the pilots’ eyes burst (Today, redout, previously seen only among fighter pilots, is an extreme challenge being spread via YouTube).
Thankfully, the connecting cable eventually burned up, breaking them free, sending their module spinning out of course. They eventually landed in Siberia, in thick snow, 2,000 kilometres beyond where the cosmonauts planned.
When they attempted to open the hatch (outward), they found it was jammed against a tree. So the duo rocked the spacecraft until it moved enough to dislodge from the tree and roll away.
When they finally opened the hatch in elation and breathed in the stark cold air, darkness set in. They were in the middle of a taiga region infested with bears and wolves.
The craft had sent a rescue signal upon landing, but mission control did not pick it up. Despite no one in Russia having any word of the cosmonauts’ whereabouts, the pilots’ families were informed that they had landed safely.
The signal had, however, been picked up by planes nearby, and one helicopter finally zoomed in overhead.
This was unfortunately a civilian craft and the pilot did not know how to conduct a rescue. Instead, they hovered with a rope ladder, which the pilots could not climb because of their spacesuits. Soon, a group of aircraft had collected overhead, with people tossing objects and alcohol from overhead. But nothing helped.
By then, Leonov had realised a new complication: All the sweat from the airlock manoeuvre had collected inside his spacesuit and formed puddles at his extremities. And it was freezing. They proceeded to undress and shred the layers of their spacesuits apart, to get at the dry, protective outer layer.
The night was difficult. The exit hatch had blown off the capsule they were nestled in and the temperatures dropped to -30°C. At one point in the night, they were even surrounded by wolves, but the animals eventually left them alone.
The pilots had to spend one more night in their capsule before the trees around them could be cleared and the duo rescued. The third morning, they went to a clearing from where they had to ski nine kilometres to get to a helicopter. When they arrived at the launch site in Baikonur, they were welcomed with much fanfare.
In his post-mission report, Leonov skipped the details. Instead, he simply wrote, “Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space. Thank you for your attention.”
The account of the mission is largely based on Alexei Leonov’s own description in his book Two Sides of the Moon, co-authored by US Apollo astronaut David Scott, as reproduced by the Air & Space Magazine.
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